On the way to fathering his 83rd child, Ed Houben walks into Arrivals Hall D at Berlin's Schönefeld Airport. He's wearing hiking pants with pocket flaps and a fleece sweater, and he's carrying a backpack with a bottle of water in one of the side pockets. "Hallo," he says, overemphasizing the letter "l" in his Dutch accent. He walks straight toward the bus stop. He's in a hurry because the would-be mother goes to bed early and they still have plans for the evening.
Houben hasn't actually traveled to meet women in a long time. Nowadays, they usually come to him. But there are emergencies like this one: The would-be mother is in the 11th day of her cycle -- that is, two days before ovulation -- and she doesn't have anyone to take care of her cats.
She is waiting in a small apartment at the other end of the city. She has inflated the air mattress in the living room and is wearing attractive lingerie.
Houben takes a seat on the upper deck of the double-decker bus. He already has three children in Berlin. The remaining 79 live in other cities and countries, including Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Spain. Houben has entered their names, dates of birth and genders into an Excel table at home. The oldest child is almost nine, while the youngest is only 2 months old. He pops another mint into his mouth and yawns. "My sleep hormones are starting to kick in," he says, "but I can't go to sleep just yet."
He gets off the bus and switches to the subway in Berlin's Rudow neighborhood. The train stops on Hermannplatz, where he has to board another bus replacing a stretch of the subway that is out of service. It's all very time-consuming. He looks at his watch. It's almost 11 p.m. "Pretty soon," he says, "there won't be much of an opportunity for romance anymore."
An attempt is planned for the evening, and a second one for the following morning. "Attempt," in this case, means sexual intercourse with a woman he met online through the sperm-donation site spermaspender.de.
The Right Fit
Houben is a sperm donor. He gives women his sperm and, according to his estimates, he succeeds in giving them a child in 80 percent of cases. "That's my success rate," he says.
Ten of the women he has helped become mothers are doctors. It's important to him that the women are educated, says Houben, a 42-year-old historian.
They must also be healthy. No drugs or HIV. No hepatitis B and C, no syphilis, no gonorrhea or other sexually transmitted diseases. No diseases caused by bacteria, such as chlamydia. "Those are my conditions," he says. He requires a medical report as evidence, and he also sends his own medical report, including a semen analysis known as a spermiogram, to the women.
The spermiogram displays his sperm count. A sperm count of less than 20 million per milliliter of ejaculate indicates that the potential donor is "not a good prospect." The prospects are better for sperm counts of 80 to 100 million. Houben's count is 100 million, "or 110 million," he says with a smile. He speaks loudly and openly on the bus, as if he were discussing a good baking recipe and he were the master baker.
As he sees it, the rules are simple. But they're really more complicated than Houben makes it seem. For childless women, the path to having a child isn't an easy one.
Sperm Banks in Germany
The method officially practiced in German doctors' officers and fertility clinics is called "donogenic insemination," and is defined as "the direct introduction of sperm cells from an unknown donor into a woman's uterus, with the goal of overcoming unwanted childlessness."
German doctors have contributed to a 36-page brochure of guidelines "for quality assurance in Germany." Most are owners of a sperm bank, of which there are about a dozen in Germany.
Briefly put, the procedure at a sperm bank goes like this: The would-be mothers are heterosexual and preferably married, and their identity is not revealed to the donor. According to the guidelines, the donor is not older than 40, undergoes a thorough examination and has sperm that meets the "minimum requirements," or 10 specific criteria. The "practical execution" is documented, and the document is kept on file for 30 years.
Sperms banks charge between €3,000 and €4,000 (about $4,000-5,300) per treatment, and they pay the donors, who are usually students, about €100 per donation.
It takes about six months before the first attempt is made.
An estimated 1,400 women become pregnant in Germany each year through official sperm donations. Others travel abroad, to clinics in Spain and England, for example, where it's easier, where there are fewer requirements, and where sperm banks are also happy to accept lesbian couples or single women as clients.
Still others write an email to Ed Houben in Maastricht, where there are almost no requirements. He provides a solution for those who lack the time, money or opportunity to take the official route.
Lawmakers aren't interested in how a child is fathered in Germany. There are no limits on how many children someone can have. Ed is the sire of a large family, and what he does isn't against the law. Still, he is taking a risk.
Under the agreements Houben reaches with the women, he has no rights or obligations, such as a duty to pay child support. But if a woman decided to change her mind, for whatever reason, these private agreements would hold absolutely no water in court. Houben could be ordered to pay support for the child and, in the first three years, for the mother, as well. The child itself could also sue for support when it gets older and has a legal say of its own.
Houben himself says that what he does is the most natural thing in the world. In livestock farming, it's called "natural mating," that is, breeding in the biologically intended manner.
Busy Making Babies
Houben gets off the bus and onto another train, takes it for a few stops, gets off and disappears as he strides briskly down a path into the Berlin night.
The next day, he's sitting in a café on what one might call his lunch break, drinking a mug of hot chocolate. He's still tired. "Well, it was a short night," he says. He is 1.90 meters (6'3") tall, heavy and doesn't sleep well on air mattresses. The first attempt planned for the evening had to be called off. He arrived 30 minutes too late on account of the work being done on the subway and the replacement bus service.
"The would-be mother wasn't pleased," Houben says. "So we're going to try it again today during the day."
He notes that they already made a first attempt in the morning. Houben had to get up early. The would-be mother fed the cats and made a breakfast of fresh rolls and coffee. "Should we walk over to the bedroom?" she asked after breakfast.
Houben doesn't know how many attempts he has made throughout his life. He meets 10 to 15 women a month. It started when he was 29, didn't have a girlfriend and wanted a family. He had heard that there were others in a similar position, even couples. He decided he wanted to help them.
He went to a Dutch fertility clinic and donated some sperm. Over time, he had donated so much sperm that, after four years, it was enough for 25 children. At that point, according to the law, he could no longer donate sperm. But he didn't want it to stop, so he went to a clinic in Belgium. In the evenings, he pursued his new mission, which involved sitting in front of the computer. He eventually found a website for lesbian couples who wanted to have children.
Other men would offer their services in classified ads. A typical description might read: "Hans, 28, athletic." But this was too crude for Houben. Most men wanted money, and they wanted to remain anonymous. He, on the other hand, felt that every child has the right to find out, at an early age, who his or her father is instead of waiting until adulthood, when they could use legal channels to find out. He wrote long letters to the women.
He deliberately became a father for the first time almost nine years ago, Houben says in the Berlin café. He had traveled to a town near Amsterdam to father a child. He doesn't accept money from would-be mothers, he says, just reimbursement for his travel expenses. The would-be mother from Berlin is paying him €130 for the bus and the flights, plus a credit card surcharge. She's also feeding him. As he sits in the café, she is back in her apartment making a mushroom cream soup, Strammer Max (a traditional German dish consisting of a slice of bread fried in butter and covered with ham and fried egg) and salad for lunch.
He has to be back by 2 p.m. He pulls his watch, which is hanging on a silver chain, out of the side pocket of his trousers. He still has a little time left.
When he fathered the first child, the one near Amsterdam, he told his brother and his sister. They were older "ex-hippies," as he describes them, "anarchist types." They congratulated him, saying that he was doing a good thing. They likened it to donating blood, and they said he was helping others create a life.
"At first, I was just dealing with Dutch women, and I was using the cup method," he says.
He interrupts the conversation. It's time to go back to the apartment. The second attempt is planned for after lunch.
Not Waiting for Mr. Right
The next day, a blonde woman comes into a different café in Berlin. She's the would-be mother. She sits down and orders a cup of tea.
She's slender and has large brown eyes, and she's wearing a thick knit cap because she easily gets cold. She's willing to talk as long as her name isn't revealed.
She seems buoyant and light-hearted. Of course, she doesn't know yet whether it worked and she's pregnant. "It's hard to feel anything at this point," she says. She'll know more in two weeks, on the 28th day of her cycle, when her period is supposed to start. "Time will fly by between now and then," she says.
She looks up, smiles shyly and says: "It was pretty stressful yesterday."
The first attempt in the morning went pretty well, she says. But the second attempt with Ed, in the afternoon, wasn't as successful. She says a few things to indicate what went wrong. Finally, she says: "He just wasn't in shape anymore."
She has wanted to have a child for the last five years, and she's become an expert on the issue over time. "Some people say you shouldn't do it twice in one day. But doing it twice means that the sperm is in the body five hours longer." That, she says, increases the odds.
She does a lot of things she believes will increase her chances of getting pregnant. After each attempt, she continues to lie on her back for 15 minutes. She doesn't drink, and she's changed her diet to include more fat and even the occasional ice cream. She prefers the "natural method," that is, having sex with men who want to donate their sperm.
"I'm completely pragmatic about it," she says. She has rules for the sex. She doesn't have a problem with kissing the man. She puts on nice lingerie, but not her best. "And I don't jerk him off or give him a blowjob," she says. She talks with the man when it's all over, during the 15 minutes on her back.
As a molecular biologist with a Ph.D. who worked in the United States for a long time, she is familiar with how it all works. She has studied plenty of complex processes in her life, including ones involving proteins, and she's familiar with coding and DNA sequences.
She had a few boyfriends, but she never wanted children during those periods. Then she turned 30 and decided she did want children, but she didn't have a boyfriend anymore. "Do you really want to wait until Mr. Right comes along?" she asked herself.
She started searching online, but at first all she found were pornography sites. Then she stumbled upon the spermaspender.de site and scrolled through the profiles of potential sperm donors.
Gerhard -- Height: 1.83 meters. Age: 40. Hair volume: Full. Glasses: Yes. Nationwide donation possible: Yes. Method: Natural. Marital status: In a committed relationship. Message: "Hi. I'm very happy to help, and I'm uncomplicated."
Markus1976 -- Height: 1.72 meters. Age: 35. Hair volume: Full. Body shape: Slightly overweight.
At first, she chose a veteran policeman with two children and a medical report. But then it turned out that he always wanted to get together in parking lots, even on days when she wasn't fertile. It made her skeptical.
She also met an architect, but he perspired too heavily. And there was a salsa dancer, too, but he wasn't reliable.
When 'Cleopatra' Met Ed
She took a break for a few years and finally created her own profile, calling herself "Cleopatra." Ed Houben from Maastricht contacted her. He wrote her a long letter.
Ed was different. She met him in December for the first time, and every four weeks after that. Ed was reliable and warm-hearted, and he knew how to talk about love. She hadn't experienced this before -- not with other donors, not with past boyfriends and not even with her parents.
Since meeting Ed, she no longer goes to dance clubs, nor is she looking online for someone to spend her life with anymore. She spends her time looking for a new job and waiting for Ed. She lives her life according to the rhythm of her menstrual cycle.
"Ed is so unproblematic. You don't even notice him," she says. But then, yesterday afternoon, there was a problem after all. She knew that he had a flight to catch at 6 p.m., and she could hear the church bells ringing at 4 o'clock. She changed her mind, opting for the cup instead, which was the faster approach. When the cup was full, she wrapped it in a towel, placed it on the radiator to keep it warm, rode her bike to the pharmacy and bought a syringe "for rearing hamsters," she says. She rode home again. "Then I inserted it very slowly and made sure that I had another orgasm."
That also increases the odds, she says.
The Making of a Career Sperm Donor
By then, Ed was long gone, back to the airport, to Maastricht and to his small neighborhood of brick buildings, where he walked up to his apartment. He was expecting guests that evening, a lesbian couple from the nearby German city of Aachen. The method was yet to be determined.
Two days later, he opens the door. The lesbian couple from Aachen is still there. Ed walks ahead into the living room and lies back down on the chaise longue in front of the TV.
A digital photo frame sits on a sideboard. The image changes every two seconds, showing the faces of his 82 children.
"Doris … Elias … Emily … Emily … Finn," Ed says as the faces change.
He moved into the apartment with his mother in 1979, when he was 10. His father, a shoe salesman, had just left his mother. His brother had died of multiple sclerosis at 22. After the brother had been buried and everyone was gone, Ed went back to the coffin and swore that he would never feel this much pain again.
He knew that he would experience the same pain by getting too close to other people, people he could lose, and so he tried to avoid other people after that.
He skipped school because he wanted to stay home, and his mother gave him sick notes. He was a chubby boy, and after finishing high school he performed his military service keeping the books for a truck-repair division. He then became a regular soldier and was stationed in Germany. Then he returned to Maastricht, where he studied history at the university. He worked as a tour guide for the city and continued to live with his mother. By that point, Houben had not done anything particularly noteworthy in his life.
From Unwanted to Wanted
When he met women, they seemed like people from another world, simultaneously threatening and iconic. Women wanted good-looking, athletic guys rather than men like him. As a student, Ed sometimes necked with girls when he was drunk at parties, but that was the extent of his romantic life.
In other words, he had no experience when, in 2002, he began offering his sperm to women who longed for a child, just as he longed for women.
He didn't tell his mother anything. He would go to the women's apartments after dinner. At first, they were women who lived in the immediate vicinity. He would disappear into a room, come out a little later with a full cup, hand over the cup, drive home again and quietly lie down in his room.
He met a couple in 2004. The man was Dutch and sterile, and the woman was South American. They made it clear to him that they didn't want just a cup of sperm. Instead, the husband said, they wanted intimacy and emotions for their child at the moment of its conception. His wife taught Ed, 34 at the time, about passion.
After that, Houben did perfectly well without the cup. To his astonishment, other would-be mothers wanted to have sex with him. There were lesbians, and there were also heterosexual women whose husbands agreed with the arrangement. Sometimes they would watch while it happened, or they would go for a walk or watch TV.
He told his mother in 2005, but she didn't say much. She moved out in 2007, to a building with an elevator. Since then, the women have been coming to Houben's apartment, where they sleep in the guest room, his old room.
He does his own laundry now, although his mother still irons his shirts and cleans the apartment. He takes her out to eat two or three times a week. He was never able to hug her in the past, but he does so now. On days when he doesn't see her, women or couples often come to visit him.
A Long and Expensive Effort
Christiane, 42, in standing in Houben's kitchen cooking a dinner of savoy cabbage with ground beef. Her 32-year-old wife is hanging out in the guest room because she doesn't want to be seen.
The two women have come to Maastricht for the first time. They were late; it was the 13th day of the cycle, the last day, the last chance. They only tried once, on the first evening.
Christiane is chopping onions. She was married to a man before and already has one child. She and her wife have been trying to have a child of their own for the last five years. They have a nice home and would prefer to adopt a child, Christiane says, but the prospects aren't good for lesbian couples where they live.
They have never wanted to go to a sperm bank. They also want the child to know his or her father at any age. They began by asking around among friends, in the gay community and in the local gay-and-lesbian association. They did find men, but it was difficult. They paid for their medications and vitamins. They eventually met a 45-year-old gay man "who really wanted to be a father," Christiane says. They tried everything with him for a year and a half: the cup method, the doctor's method, the test tube. In the end, it turned out that only 20 percent of his sperm cells were still moving.
Christiane and her wife have learned a lot in the process, but now they're broke. They've spent €20,000 in their efforts to have a child. Now their only option is Ed Houben.
Houben has since gotten up from the chaise longue and moved to his study. There are history books on the shelves and small figurines on the desk, including one of a pregnant woman.
He turns the computer on, opens the Excel file and reads out the names. He has just recalculated the total for each year. 2011: 11 births. Total: 45 girls, 35 boys. It's his balance sheet.
He doesn't know the gender of two of the children because the mothers have never told him. And he doesn't ask, either. It's part of the verbal deal he makes with the women: Neither side has any claims on the other.
Still, most of the mothers want to stay in contact. They send letters and photos at Christmas. Houben doesn't write back, saying it would be too expensive. There are two children's calendars hanging on the bathroom wall. He has come up with a trick to help him remember the names of the children in the digital photo frame, and he's also sorted the pictures alphabetically.
"Ten women are pregnant at the moment," he says, closing the Excel file. Then he logs on to the spermasender.de website, where he finds a new request. He keeps talking while he pastes the name into an empty email, copies his letter into the email and hits "Send."
Making Up for Lost Time
Houben closes the browser and all the other windows on his computer. All that's left is the screensaver, a picture of an attractive young Spanish woman with long, brown hair. "My girlfriend," he says.
He looks at the image for a while and finally says: "Yeah, she was once a would-be mother, too."
Ed has known her for three months. She is his third girlfriend. The two previous girlfriends were also would-be mothers. The first one couldn't handle what he does. The second one simply left him. It was the first time Ed had his heart broken.
Since becoming a sperm donor, Houben has experienced things that are normally reserved for teenagers: his first real sex, his first passionate relationship and his first breakup. He is also learning that life goes on after a painful breakup. As a 42-year-old, he is making up for the things he missed earlier in life.
"My girlfriend says that what I do only makes me more interesting," he says. She's coming to visit again soon, he adds, noting that she hasn't had any luck getting pregnant yet.
When asked whether he would consider stopping what he does for his girlfriend, Houben says "No." But then he hesitates and adds: "Maybe."
Living a Lie for Love
For now, he doesn't see an end to his sperm-donating career. He is still in contact with a Vietnamese woman, and there are other women -- such as the one we will call Pia -- who want a second child from him, a sibling for the first one. Pia already has a child fathered by Houben, a two-and-a-half-year-old boy named Max, Houben's 59th child.
Pia, 40, lives in a major German city. Her relationships have already been short-lived, saying that she always breaks them off after no more than eight months. She went into the delivery room with her brother and her father. She went to prenatal classes designed specifically for singles. She bought the pregnancy test at a local drugstore. She only made one trip to see Houben in Maastricht. There, she chose the cup and said she preferred to be alone. She went into the guest room, placed a cushion under her behind, turned on some music and lit candles. "I wanted to make a child for myself," she says. Now Pia picks up that child from a daycare facility every day.
But she has already had to deal with the youth welfare office almost every day since Max's birth. She receives unemployment, and the youth welfare office pays the child support that the father would normally pay. If it ever emerged that she had lied on her application, she would be required to repay the money, and charges could be brought against her for "benefit fraud."
Government agencies do their homework. Pia was required to list all the people she had sex with in the year before Max was born. Then, working like detectives, employees from the child support office contacted the men.
Pia lives with this lie because she needs the money, but she also needs the child. She says she's happier than ever before. It doesn't bother her that Max has 81 half-siblings or that Houben has fathered the children of so many women. "He gives each of them the feeling of being unique," she says.
When other children ask Max who his father is, he says nothing. Pia has a book for him at home, a sex-education book for children starting at age four. They occasionally look inside the book. It's about a mother who didn't have a husband, but who knew a friendly man who gave her his sperm.
A Day with the Children
Once a year, Pia and Max visit their friendly man. Houben rents a restaurant in Maastricht for the event, and he invites all of his biological children.
Fifteen children came to the last get-together. It was in May, and everyone sat outside on a deck. Ed gave each child a present, a small ball.
Pia describes how Max approached Ed once taking slow steps, which she says was odd because he isn't really a very daring child. Max sat on "Papa Ed's" lap for a moment, and then they left.
Just like all of Ed's children, Max has his round indented chin and large feet. The children usually have their mothers' eyes. They are still young, but as they get older they'll start asking questions, and they'll want answers. Perhaps they'll want a closer relationship with him, a more loving relationship. Or maybe they'll want financial support.
When asked whether he worries about such things, Houben answers: "About what?"
If they'll all show up on his doorstep one day, he says, "it'll be what I wanted" And if they all want money from him, he says, he simply won't have any. Certainly not enough for 84-plus children.
The Good Life
It's evening, and Ed is sitting in a barbecue restaurant in downtown Maastricht wearing a green T-shirt bearing the German word for "police" in capital letters. He slices into his large steak with relish, says "mmmmm" and takes a sip of red wine. He wipes his hands on a paper napkin and runs his thumb across his large stomach. His weight doesn't bother him, he says, at least not anymore. He says that Victoria, Johanna and all the rest say he looks good just the way he is.
These days, when women come to visit him, he likes it when they cook his favorite meals -- definitely with meat in them. This is new.
It's also new that he no longer shows the women around the city. He's no longer at home for the entire duration of their stay. He has the women send him photos, and now he wants the women not to be too tall or too fat. He has sex with the women in 75 percent of cases.
"My girlfriend says I'm a macho guy," he says. Then he talks about positions, like the "missionary position" and the "Chinese puzzle." People who run Internet forums now invite him to speak as an expert on private sperm donation in places as far away as the United States.
He talks, cuts into his steak, and talks some more. "Mmmmm," he says. He almost seems intoxicated. When he's finished eating, he glances at his cell phone. He's received a response from the spermaspender.de website. It's from the woman who had sent him a message that afternoon. She wants to visit him.